The rest of the country knows Hoboken for the sculpted sheet cakes that come from its most famous bakery. They're swathed in sheets of Satin Ice brand fondant tinted a rainbow of hues not found in nature. Even on the coldest days, the line for Carlo's Bakery, of reality show fame, stretches for blocks down toward the train tracks. Hobokenites know their city for the good bread produced by the bakeries that aren't featured on TV.
Hoboken's bread-baking tradition traces his lineage to one man, Leopoldo Policastro, who was born in the small town of Saviano near Naples. After learning the trade in Italy, Policastro immigrated to New York, married, and ended up working at a bakery called Marie's on 2nd Street. He eventually bought out the owner and introduced his line of loaves, including round peasant bread and focaccia with a simple tomato sauce topping. His main product was the "French" loaf, a fat and chewy white-flour baguette. Policastro-style bread remains the staple on Hoboken tables today.
Leopoldo Policastro told his daughter, "You always have bread and water." In other words, even in the toughest times, you always have bread to sustain you. Today, Renee Marie Policastro still runs Marie's from the original location. Unfortunately, Marie's lost its oven a few years ago (long story). However, most of Hoboken's bakers are linked by bonds of blood, marriage, and obligation, so Marie's uses the century-old ovens at Antique Bakery on Willow Street, whose owner learned the trade from Renee's father. She goes there every evening to oversee, because even though the ingredients--flour, water, salt, and yeast--are simple, the preparation has to be done with loving care.
Marie's bread might look like a baguette, but it's much denser, with a fragrant yeasty aroma. It's a perfect base for the other Hoboken staple, fresh mozzarella, locally known as "muzz." Frank Sinatra used to have loaves shipped out to him in Palm Springs. Over at Fiore's deli at 414 Adams Street, they make superlative mozzarella and roast beef heroes on Marie's bread.
Another version of Policastro bread is made at Dom's Bakery on Grand Street. Its owner, Dominic Castellitto, got into baking because he married another daughter of Leopoldo Policastro. Ask him what makes Hoboken bread so special, and he'll instantly answer, "It's the coal ovens and it's the water." Renee Policastro says that the water is hard, i.e. it has a relatively high mineral content, and it's consistent, always coming out of the pipes the same.
Dom bought his bakery 18 years ago, finding one with 120 year old, coal-fired ovens. His loaves are slightly lighter than Marie's, with a crackling crust and delicious, springy crumb. Dom's focaccia is also superlative, with the moist bread holding a savory smear of sauce made from canned tomatoes, oregano, olive oil, and salt. Long after the TV cameras have gone, Leopoldo Policastro's breads will survive.
506 Grand Street, Hoboken NJ 07030 (map) 201-963-4281